May 6, 2012 / 8:57 PM / 6 years ago

UPDATE 1-Erdogan says victory near for Syrian rebels

(Adds more comments from Erdogan, refugees, background)

By Ayla Jean Yackley

KILIS, Turkey, May 6 (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told Syrian refugees on Sunday that victory for the rebels in their country was not far off and President Bashar al-Assad was “losing blood” by the day.

Erdogan, who has tried to rally international support against the government in neighbouring Syria over its 14-month crackdown against opponents, was met with enthusiastic applause and shouts of “Long live Erdogan” at the Kilis refugee camp.

“Bashar is losing blood every day,” Erdogan told the crowd of about 1,500 people less than a kilometre from the border.

“Your victory is not far off. We have just one issue: to stop the bloodshed and tears and for the Syrian people’s demands to be met.”

Erdogan addressed the crowd from the top of a bus while military snipers watched from rooftops. Hundreds of police and soldiers guarded the road from the airport to the camp.

His remarks came on the eve of a parliamentary election in Syria that Damascus has said shows reforms are under way.

But fighting in Syria continues despite a U.N.-monitored ceasefire, brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in place since last month. Fresh clashes erupted on Sunday between rebels and Assad’s forces in eastern Syria.

“We maintain our hopes for the implementation of the Annan plan, but the bad news out of Syria is progressively undermining those hopes,” Erdogan later told a news conference.

“Simply following the Annan plan will not bring about a resolution ... A reform process that expands freedom within a parliamentary, constitutional system should start immediately.”

Erdogan added that the number of refugees arriving in Turkey had declined since the ceasefire took effect.

JOURNALISTS

Two Turkish journalists in Syrian custody since March have contacted their family to say they are in good health, he said.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been seeking their release with both the Syrian and Iranian governments, he added.

Erdogan also vowed to continue to push the international community, including the UN and Arab League, to apply pressure to Assad’s government to end the conflict.

Members of the crowd at the camp called for a buffer zone within Syria, an earlier Turkish proposal to protect civilians that has failed to gain traction.

They also chanted: “We want arms for the Free Syrian Army.”

Erdogan has held his former friend Assad personally responsible for the deaths of civilians.

The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died in the crackdown, while the Syrian government says it has lost at least 2,600 of its forces to “foreign-backed terrorists.”

About 9,000 Syrians fleeing violence are sheltering at the camp in Kilis province, comprised of 2,000 container homes. It also has three schools, two mosques and a supermarket.

In a sign the refugees’ stay is expected to be a long one, authorities are moving occupants of tent cities at other spots along the 900-km (550-mile) border to the Kilis site, which cost $50 million to build, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Turkey is providing shelter for a total of 23,000 Syrian refugees, Erdogan said. In all, Turkey has spent about $150 million providing for Syrian refugees.

Stray bullets from clashes between the Syrian army and rebels hit the Kilis camp in April, injuring two refugees and two Turkish workers and sparking a furious response from Erdogan who hinted that Turkey, as a NATO member, could invoke Article 5 which calls for an allied defence of its borders.

The attack last month “created an atmosphere of terror in the camp,” said Naji Abdul Wahab, a farmer who fled with his wife and children after government forces destroyed their home.

“Erdogan’s visit here is a victory for us,” Wahab said.

“The standards here are good but we long to go home. For us to return, Assad must go. Then we will go back and build a new home.” (Editing by Andrew Roche)

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